It often feels that too many Baptists (in the UK only?) give short shrift to the work of theology. We know we probably need some, but definitely not too much. The Whitley Lecture is one small recognition that Baptists are doing theology. Although it was founded in 1949, during the 1980s (if not before) it fell by the wayside. It was recovered in 1996 as an annual public lecture given by a Baptist. And every year, apart from 2005, it has been delivered around the Baptist colleges and at the Baptist Assembly. Sadly, at an Assembly reduced to two days (and in following years to one day), there is no space for it to be heard.
This year it has been delivered at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London and, I'm pleased to say, to a small crowd today at Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend.
Over the last eighteen years the Whitley Lecture has demonstrated that there are a few Baptists who have been encouraged to think theologically and at depth. Many of those who delivered it have been past recipients of a BU Scholarship to pursue doctoral research. It has also shown a wide range of topics and interests amongst Baptists. So the Lecture has covered issues of political theology, ministry, eucharistic theology, the place of children, violence, tradition, ecclesiology, worship, disability, medical ethics and interpreting the Bible.
Two of the most important Lectures in terms of helping local Baptist churches and their wider bodies, I think, have been on the matter of biblical interpretation. The first is Sean Winter's 2007 Lecture, 'More Light and Truth?: Biblical Interpretation in Covenantal Perspective' and the second is this year's lecture by Helen Dare, 'Always on the way and in the fray: Reading the Bible as Baptists.' Both lectures seek to explore in related ways the nature of how Baptist communities read the Bible together. Baptist communities are understood as those who have covenanted together before God and with one another, but who find when we pay attention to the diversity of voices amongst us, that there will be inevitable disagreement. Sean Winter reminds us that interpreting the Bible is always an ongoing exercise, that is, there is always more light and truth to be revealed. In her lecture, Helen Dare turns to Walter Brueggemann as a dialogue partner, whose work on the relationship between God and Israel is one that is richly helpful in terms of what it might mean to read Scripture in community.
Both works challenge Baptists to reflect on how the Bible is read within our churches, whether in terms of worship, study or church meeting. Both seek to show how our Bible reading is always 'on the way', its ongoing activity, because we are a community on our way, and 'in the fray', it is a passionate activity, because we are a community with convictions, which in some places can be deeply contested. Both seek to show how we read the Bible is a divine activity, it seeks the hear the Word in the text, but also a human one with all its ability to read coercively.
Both Winter and Dare (and the wider work within the volume edited by Dare and Woodman on Baptist hermeneutics), show the possibilities of a Baptist approach to reading scripture that takes God, the church and particular voices seriously, as we aim to be faithful to scripture and the call of Christ.